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Crime control technology - help or hindrance?

Media Release

11 February 1998

New crime control technologies do not automatically lend themselves to responsible use. Some are vulnerable to inappropriate or excessive use by criminals or police, some are potentially harmful to innocent third parties, while others infringe on individual privacy and freedom.

These are the findings of Technology and Crime Control released today by the Australian Institute of Criminology. Recognising that new technologies should not be embraced uncritically, author Peter Grabosky discusses some of the principles which might accompany their introduction in a democratic society.

"As we approach the 21st century, our efforts to tackle crime will be assisted significantly by developments in technology. Along with these, however, come certain downside risks", said Australian Institute of Criminology Director, Dr Adam Graycar.

Technology and Crime Control points out that the public should be the ultimate beneficiaries of new crime prevention technologies, their development and use should be based on thorough consultation and extensive testing, and those who use them should be appropriately trained and supervised.

The paper discusses technologies for surveillance, detection, blocking, restraint and incapacitation, and identifies some of their adverse unintended consequences.

Surveillance technologies have been deployed for voyeurism, rather than public safety. Technologies of restraint can cause serious injury and have been used as punishment, even torture, rather than for humane incapacitation in legitimate circumstances.

The development of more sophisticated vehicle anti-theft devices has lead to increased car hi-jackings - much more violent crimes than simple motor vehicle theft.

Another risk involves the exploitation of technologies by criminals themselves. Already numerous accounts of criminals using sophisticated communications and surveillance technology have emerged. Ongoing assessment is necessary to ensure that new technologies prevent more crime than they facilitate.

Various surveillance and control technologies are regarded by some as imposing intolerable constraints on individual privacy and freedom. The balance between freedom and security in a democratic society is not easy and it is likely that advances in such technologies will accompany changes in civil liberties and human rights law.

The use of "high-tech" means of restraint might well lead to changes in police practice. Easily available technological fixes may tempt reliance to the extent that traditional law enforcement skills become neglected and community relations will be overlooked.

Other social impacts of crime prevention technologies may include disproportionate use of restraint technologies against disadvantaged groups, and a shift in the burden of crime to those prospective victims who are unable to afford security technologies.

This does not mean that we should refrain from developing new technologies for crime control simply because they may be subject to misuse. "The telephone, indeed, the wheel, have criminal applications," Dr Grabosky said. "Technologies in the hands of responsible, accountable professionals can enhance liberty, rather than threaten it," Dr Grabosky added.

The Australian Institute of Criminology's Internet Crime Conference is being held at the University of Melbourne, 16-17 February 1998.

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